From Blog to Website – A New Adventure

Hi everyone! I’ve know I’ve fallen off the grid lately, but I have been working hard to bring positive change to this blog.

With most of the heavy lifting behind me, I’m ready to announce that I’ve re-named the blog and launched it as my own website!  Here’s some answers to questions you might have about the change:

Where do I find future posts?  I’ll be posting my stories on http://www.tothefulllist.com/.  There’s still a LOT of dust settling around the new site, so please bear with me as I smooth out the bumps.

What’s in a name? I’ve decided that while “The Other A-List” explains that (1) I’m Aimee and (2) I have this list, the name of the blog doesn’t truly represent what this project is all about.  It’s about using my bucket list as a challenge to live life to the fullest.  In explaining this to my mom one day, she noticed the play on words.

In trying to live life to the FULLEST, I have a very FULL LIST.  The more I thought about it, the more I liked the way it will brand the stories that I tell.

If you are an email-only follower of The Other A List and would like to still receive updates, please follow this link and type your email address in the “Get Email Updates” section of the sidebar.  You will receive a verification email–click the confirmation link within it, and you’re set.Capture

If you are a WordPress follower of The Other A List and would like to still receive updates, it is very easy.  Go to your WordPress Reader and click the “Edit” button on the “Blogs I follow” section of the side bar.

Edit

Simply copy and paste the link below (an RSS feed) into the empty field and press enter/follow.  If you get stuck, this WordPress support link is really helpful.

http://tothefulllist.squarespace.com/recent-posts?format=rss

Edit Blogs I follow

If you follow The Other A List via my personal facebook page, nothing will change except for the cosmetic appearance of the push updates.

Thanks so much for reading and following this project throughout the years.  I hope you will stay tuned as I take this next step.

Cheers!

Aimee

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An Afternoon Wandering HCM [Vietnam]

On our last day in HCM, we toured districts 1 & 3, home of many of the city’s sites and cafés.  Our first mission was to find one of the exercise parks that we had passed in our cab the night before.

Scattered throughout HCM are parks with exercise equipment for adults, encouraging you to work out while keeping an eye on your kids at the playground.  There are dip bars, benches for crunches, elliptical machines and bikes, to name a few.  Kursten and I had a field day testing out all of the equipment.  I also discovered the slo-mo video function on my phone, so…welp…this happened:

After our tough 😉 workout in the exercise park, hunger struck.  Previously a French colony, HCM has a noticeable French influence, so we were on the lookout for a cute little café.  It took some patient searching to find this place, but L’Usine captured our attention immediately with it’s chic urban atmosphere and the smell of baguettes wafting out onto the street.  L’Usine sits on the second floor of it’s sister shop, so we picked a spot on the outdoor balcony to enjoy the breeze and watch the traffic whiz by.  

L'usine

After a long leisurely lunch, we wandered.  We didn’t have much of an agenda on mind–both Kursten and I were pretty tired and Ryan & Chris had flown out the night before.  We toured some of the main landmarks at a leisurely pace, admiring the French architecture.

  • The Municipal Theater

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  • City Hall

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  • Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica – mass was underway and people were attending their parked motorbikes outside.

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  • The Post Office

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  • …annnnnnnd a pretty neat tree (not a landmark, but cool nonetheless ;))

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Walking back to the hotel, the realization hit me.  My trip was over.  The planning, the tickets, everything that I had obsessed over for the past few months was just…over.  It’s silly to say, but I felt a loss and mourned the end of the adventure.  On the flight home, I couldn’t decide if I was ready to go home in order to (a) relax, or (b) start scheming up something new.

After 6 weeks back at home, I can say it’s the latter.  The map’s back out, and I’m scheming.

Find me on Trip Advisor (The Other A-List):

L’Usine

 

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Cu Chi Tunnels [Vietnam]

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong had a stronghold in the Cu Chi District, where they could take advantage of their intricate underground tunnel system.

The tunnel digging actually began about 20 years prior to the Vietnam War, when the country was fighting for independence from France.  By the time the Vietnam War was in full swing, however, the tunnels had expanded to stretch over 120 miles and were key in the Viet Cong’s strategy.

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The tunnels not only provided Viet Cong troops protection from US aerial attacks, but also they served as a safe house for civilians.  The tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to transport supplies unseen and lay their infamous booby traps.

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The US and South Vietnamese troops trained some smaller soldiers to navigate the underground system.  They were called “tunnel rats” and their job was to ferret out enemy troops and booby traps.  Some parts of the tunnel system are now open to tourists, as a war memorial to the thousands of Vietnamese that lost their lives there.  An AK-47 shooting range was on site and the sound of constant gun fire helps set the scene.

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While I enjoyed learning more about the tunnels and the incredible adaptability of Veit Cong troops,  the experience was very commercialized.  Everywhere you looked, there were mannequins and little “Disney display” bunkers.  Photo ops were plentiful, with children climbing on a destroyed American tanker and folks taking photos in sections of the tunnels, enlarged for the Western ba-donk-a-donk (I am guilty, as you can see ;)).

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Another thing that turned me off was the extreme anti-American sentiment.  I suppose some of it is to be expected, as I was once told that history–not beauty–is in the eye of the beholder. Also, I’m glad I could witness the flip side of the American narrative,  However, many elements of the theme park memorial–from the videos, to the signs, to the proud display of destroyed American tanks–felt like an accusation.

I would have liked to spend more time on the farm instead.

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Farm Visit & Cooking Class [Vietnam]

Sad to say goodbye to Cambodia, our group bus-ed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City.  You have lots of options for this route, but we chose the Mekong Express.  At ~$13 for a one-way ticket, it’s the most expensive bus option but the reliability and relative comfort was worth it.  Plus, 13 buckeroos buys you an on-board TV, featuring 6 straight hours of dubbed 80’s love ballads.  If only I was feeling well enough to rally for a good round of karaoke.  On our last day in Phnom Penh, my stomach staged a revolt and I was struggling to enjoy myself.  If my cocktail of 7Up, white rice, Cipro, & Pepto Bismol didn’t work, I’d get better by sheer willpower.

Something was working because, by the next day, I was feeling marginally better.  This was good timing, as we had a day full of food on the docket!  Leaving the chaos of the city behind, we headed out to the Cu Chi district for Chef Tan’s HCM Cooking Class.

Mr. Tan (founder/head chef) greeted us warmly and took us on a thorough tour of his small farm. We trekked through the fields and gardens, learning about the various vegetables and roots.

Everything the Light touches

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He sure was a jokester, telling us that various Vietnamese herbs could help us improve our love lives. 😉

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He also proudly showed off his mushroom house.  I learned how to distinguish between the different kinds of mushrooms, and how to grow them in a house like this one:

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After an hour or two of touring the farm as students, Mr. Tan became “serious”.  He handed each of us a basket and jokingly barked orders about which herbs and vegetables we needed for our meal.  He ran a tight ship, challenging our choices to make sure we had been paying attention earlier (“Are you sure what’s in your hand is Thai basil?!”).

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Once we had passed Mr. Tan’s little tests and gathered all of the ingredients, we headed to the veranda to get cooking!

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Mr. Tan’s assistant took charge of washing our freshly-picked ingredients, while Mr. Tan introduced us to our little cooking stations.

F9E74C03-042F-4E80-B2A5-4E70F9ED5645_zpslirz1r5nEach dish that we prepared was simple, but rich in flavor.  There were some common elements throughout:

  • Fish sauce is to the Vietnamese as olive oil is to the Italians…it’s included in nearly every recipe.
  • In terms of herbs, lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, and basil were the mainstays
  • Cooking methods are simple.  We cooked on a stove reminiscent of my family’s old Colman’s camping stove.  No elaborate whipping, basting, or baking–we cut, chopped, and occasionally simmered.  Totally my style.

The first course was a seafood mushroom soup, followed by a water spinach salad with prawns and pork.  The salad was my favorite dish – full of fresh herbs and vegetables that were finely chopped and shredded–delicious!

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The main course was chicken thigh stew cooked in a clay pot and for dessert we made banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream.  In case you’re wondering, coconut ice cream will change your life.

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After cooking each dish, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor.   After the completing all four courses, our favorite comedian/chef staged a little graduation ceremony, and we were awarded with certificates of completion!  Watch out, Giada!  I’m coming for ya!

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 Find me on Trip Advisor (The Other A-List):

HCM Cooking Class

Windsor Plaza Hotel

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Observations, In Pictures [Cambodia]

Some parting observations of Cambodia, in pictures.

Bike

Green Tea + Kit KatYou shall not pass

TP Mango Sticky Rice Tuk Tuk

Amok Cambodia Beer Takeaway coffee in love - summer rolls McKayla Maroney No Erasers Eggs Chubby Monkey

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S-21 and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields [Cambodia]

In January, Chase and I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and I found it to be an incredibly moving experience.  Visiting the S-21 prison and the killing fields in Phnom Penh evoked similar emotions.

Prior to our trip to Cambodia, I knew that the government had recently and crudely killed its own citizens (*shudder*).  What I didn’t understand was why.  Luke Walker from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies wrote a brief synopsis that captures what we learned by wandering through the memorial sites in Phnom Penh and talking to our bike tour guides in Siem Reap:

“In order to achieve the ‘ideal’ communist model, the Khmer Rouge believed that all Cambodians must be made to work as laborer in one huge federation of collective farms; anyone in opposition to this system must be eliminated. This list of ‘potential opposition’ included, but was not limited to, intellectuals, educated people, professionals, monks, religious enthusiasts…[…]….Under threat of death, Cambodians nationwide were forced from their hometowns and villages.  The ill, disabled, old and young who were incapable of making the journey to the collectivized farms and labor camps were killed on the spot. People who refused to leave were killed, along with any who appeared to be in opposition to the new regime. The people from entire cities were forcibly evacuated to the countryside. All political and civil rights of the citizen were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labor camps. Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered, along with their extended families. Religion was also banned: leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned. While racist sentiments did exist within the Khmer Rouge, most of the killing was inspired by the extremist propaganda of a militant communist transformation. It was common for people to be shot for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, smiling, or crying. One Khmer slogan best illuminates Pol Pot’s ideology: ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.’ ” (Walker, source)

As recently as the late 1970s, there was such hatred, such an apathy toward the lives of others.  Kursten and I did some quick math.  If the genocide ended around 1978, this means that anyone we encountered that appeared to be over the age of 35 had lived through this nightmare.  The survivors were in front of us–living, breathing, working to re-establish themselves after their loved ones were murdered, their education system destroyed, their economy overturned, and the forward movement of society halted (remember, all professionals, doctors, educated people were “removed” from society).  Imagine that.  Imagine rebuilding.

The first stop on our memorial tour was the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison.  Previously a school, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a top-secret prison, where they kept and tortured high-ranking officials suspected of treason.

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Most people didn’t know the charges behind their arrest, but their whole family would be captured and the officials would be tortured until they confessed to whatever the Khmer Rouge said that they had allegedly done.  After they confessed (under duress or not), they were killed.  An estimated 14,000-20,000 people were kept here and the Documentation Center of Cambodia estimates that only ~200 survived or were released.

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One of the most haunting things is that  you can still see the chalkboards with remnants of old lessons on the walls of some of the prison cells.  Next to remnants of torture instruments.

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Our second stop on the tour was Choeung Ek, a killing field and mass grave of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.  People were driven out in trucks, most of them from the S-21 prison, and were usually killed upon arrival. They were hewn to pieces or brutally beaten before being tossed into large pits in the ground, mass graves.

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The Khmer Rouge didn’t even have the mercy to shoot them–ammunition was too precious of a commodity–and they were crudely killed with spades or sharpened bamboo sticks.  They bashed the children’s heads against trees.

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There is a free audioguide that comes with the admission price of $2 that helps take you back to the fields in the 1970s.  The guide does a good job of illustrating the primitive methodologies that the Khmer Rouge employed and has some chilling audio recollections of some of the survivors.

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There is a commemorative stupa set up in the center of the site.  The skulls of the thousands that died here are on display to all who walk by, a reminder of the recent past, ensuring that it is not forgotten.

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Of possible interest:

Who was Pol Pot?

Dale of Cambodia, an up-and-coming documentary

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal a Shocking Failure

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Paddy’s Fight Club [Learn a Martial Art, Cambodia]

When we rode our bikes through the Angkor temples (in case you missed it), we met two Phnom Penh residents–an Australian girl and her Swedish roommate.  They were so friendly and gave us various recommendations of what to do when we rolled into Phnom Penh.  One of the things that they suggested was…wait for it…kick boxing at Paddy’s Fight Club.

A few days later, on the long bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we all agreed that kickboxing was just what we needed to let off some steam and lift our spirits.  Plus, with a name like Paddy’s Fight Club, how could we not go?!

As we crossed the threshold of the hole-in-the-wall gym, the great idea we had on the bus suddenly seemed like a terrible idea.  These people were serious boxers and I was sure they would pulverize me…were the Australian and the Swede joking when they suggested this?!  We shyly made our way to the desk at the back where we paid our $6 (cost per lesson, every night at 7pm), and started stretching.

Around 6:45, a couple of the serious boxers that were practicing before grouped us newbies into little pods and took us to a separate section of the gym to teach us some moves.  We mostly just did drills and then got some 1:1 time with the instructor to do what we had learned on his command.

1-2…1-2…1-2-3-4. Kick right.  Kick left.  Hiiiiiiiya!!!!!

I felt like the bad ass that I’m not.  I was in love.

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Back at the hotel that night, I sent an email to Chase: “Let’s start kickboxing”.

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Phnom Kulen National Park [Cambodia]

On our third day in Siem Reap, we wanted to get out.  Perhaps the prior day’s trip to Beng Mealea had affirmed the good times to be had when you step out of tourist central.  Or perhaps it was the thought of cooling off in a waterfall. 😉

We used our hotel, the Golden Butterfly Villa (full review here), to arrange a car for the day.  Our destination: the waterfall in Phnom Kulen National Park.  Ever since Ryan (also with us on this trip) organized the trip to Havasupai Falls in 2012, I’ll admit that I’ve been a waterfall chaser.

Sorry, TLC, but your advice sucks.

Phnom Kulen sits on a mountain top, approximately 2 hours outside of Siem Reap by car. After confirming our plans and the cost with the driver, we crammed into the back of the sedan and stomached the drive with no AC or leg room.  What I didn’t realize is that by hiring a driver to take us to Phnom Kulen, we also were agreeing for him to funnel us through two additional sites on the way there.

The first stop was an archaeological site at the base of the mountain, the River of 1000 Lingas.  We emptied out of the car, and–unsure of what to do–we started hiking along the river.

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We didn’t have a guide and most of the significance was lost on me, but I did gather some info about this site.  To many, lingas are a Hindu symbol of divine energy, associated with the god, Shiva.  To the non-Hindu that I am, they were squares with raised bumps, carved in the river bed.  As the water passes over these holy carvings, it is sanctified, made holy for the temples downstream.  We made two friends along the way, who enticed us into our second game of jump rope in Cambodia.

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The next stop on the way to the falls was Preah Ang Thom, home of the largest reclining Buddha in Cambodia.  We passed up these steps, lined by children and merchants selling flowers or other offerings.

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We removed our shoes (a couple of ladies fought over who would watch our discarded shoes while we went up to the temple.  Later, the lady who won demanding payment for her watchfulness) and continued up the steps to view the Buddha.  I don’t believe there is an explanation for why it is reclining, but it is magnificent, painted gold and surrounded by offerings of vibrant colors.  The terrace surrounding the Buddha’s room affords a nice view of the surrounding jungle.

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We piled into the car again ready for our final destination…the waterfall!  As with Preah Ang Thom, we passed through various vendor stalls and merchants before arriving at the falls.  The first set of falls was tiny, and I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed.  We came all this way for a tiny waterfall?  😦

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Then, we heard a larger thundering sound…there was another waterfall further downstream!  We climbed down some structurally questionable wooden stairs to find this bad boy:

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I could hardly believe it!  It was incredible.  Plus, the park was pretty empty, so we were able to enjoy the falls as if they were our own.  We waded out to a large rock poking out in the center of the pool and made that home base.  From there, we played in the falls and basked in the sun for the rest of the afternoon.  Too soon, it was time to leave.

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This place has to be Siem Reap’s best kept “secret”.  To be sure, the temples are spectacular, but this place had that intangible…je ne sais quoi.  It was peaceful, and beautiful, and it wasn’t somewhere we had to “check” off our list, but rather someplace we wandered in hopes of finding something amazing.  And we did.

Find me on Trip Advisor (the Other A List)

Phnom Kulen National Park

Genevieve’s Restaurant (where we ate after our day by the waterfall)

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Biking Through the Countryside to Beng Mealea [Cambodia]

On our first day in Cambodia, we biked around the Angkor temples, but our second day was arguably my most favorite of the entire trip.

We hired a guide (again through Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us ~40 miles into the Cambodian countryside to visit the far-flung temple of Beng Mealea.   We met our guide early in the morning, signed our lives away, then got situated on the mountain bikes that would be ours for the rest of the day.  The day was already hot, slated to reach around 95 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon.

Our guide led us immediately out of Siem Reap, back along a sandy path that turned into a dusty dirt road.  It was if someone had drawn a line around the bustling city of Siem Reap and once we crossed that line, the level of poverty increased tenfold.  We pedaled along, passing palm trees, workers in the rice fields, people wading out into ponds to throw out fishing nets (not for sport, but to catch their food for the day).

I don’t have any pictures from our ride out to the countryside.  Part of it was logistical–it’s hard to manage a camera while riding a bike along a bumpy dirt road!–but the other part of it was out of respect for the people.  Seeing Cambodians as they are day-to-day wasn’t a tourist attraction, so I felt I would just observe and try to soak it all in.

Some of my observations (filled in with little facts from our guide):

  • The houses are built on stilts, which originated when their ancestors lived in the jungle and needed to keep their homes out of reach from predators.
  • Back home, it’s easy to take for granted what we have or to feel inadequate if we don’t have the granite counter tops, the stainless steel appliances, or the living room crafted together à la Pinterest.  These houses have no running water, no electricity, no AC in blisteringly hot weather, and have roofs and walls fashioned from dried palm leaves.  It really put things into perspective, and helped me recalibrate what I thought of as “normal”.
  • We didn’t go unnoticed.  It was Sunday, so the children were at home and the adults were working nearby.  The adults waved, and the children would run as fast as their little legs could carry them to shout “Helllllllooooo!!!!” as we pedaled by.   They weren’t asking for money, as children in Siem Reap did.  They were simply excited to be practicing the English they had learned in school.  One little girl ran up beside Kursten and asked, “Where are you from?”  When Kursten replied (“America”), the little girl’s eyes lit up and she said “I know!  Capital: Washington DC!”  After correctly recalling the capital of the US, she stopped running beside us.
  • Family sizes in Cambodia are quite big.  Our guide told us that a small family would have up to 5 kids, the standard size being 6-10.  Families lived off of ~40 cents/person/day.  40 cents a day.
  • Cows are skinnnnny.  They use them for labor, not necessarily for juicy steak.  I wouldn’t recommend ordering beef anywhere in SE Asia.  Stick with the fish, vegetables, and rice 😉
  • Roadside shops are common, set up on tiny wooden tables selling drinks, snacks, and gas in glass bottles.  They are manned by members of the family, whoever happens to be around to take care of the customer.  We stopped at a few!
  • Jump rope was pretty big.  We stopped to play (video here).

Later that afternoon, we completed the Tour de Cambodia.  We had made the long journey and tucked into some lunch before heading on to the temple.

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The Beng Mealea temple was well worth the journey.  We had the temple nearly to ourselves, most people not taking the trouble to travel that far out of Siem Reap.  The temple itself is being swallowed up by the jungle–vines are weaving their way over and between the stones–and trees are growing out of the carvings.  The temple is in shambles, seemingly forgotten.  It is quiet here.  Our guide told us that the Pol Pot regime had used this temple as a sort of base in the jungle, and that the land mines surrounding it had only recently been removed by funding from a German organization.

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I will never forget this incredible place.  Not Cambodia.  Not Beng Mealea.   What an impression they have made.

Find me on Trip Advisor (the other A-list)

Grasshopper Adventures Bike Ride to Beng Mealea

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Angkor Temples by Bike [Cambodia]

As I left Thailand, I prepared myself to be a unnerved by Cambodia.

I shouldn’t have gone through the effort, though, because Cambodia calmed me from the start.  First, it was the friendly people.  We flew into a rinky-dink airport and were greeted  by a man with a smile and a tuk tuk.  The hotel had sent him.  He loaded our bags into his tuk tuk (a motorbike with a passenger cart hitched to it), smiled at us some more, and then motored down the road to our hotel.  Once there, we were greeted by the staff pictured below.  Someone carried our bags up to our room while another served us a traditional Khmer welcome drink and sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.  Still another kept us company while we ate and he described all of the hotel services that would be available to us free of charge.  I think I’m going to like it here.

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The people of Cambodia charmed us with their genuine hospitality and warmth; wandering through Angkor had us enchanted.  The next day, we hired a guide (through the tour company, Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us through Angkor, the UNESCO World Heritage site that houses remains from the Khmer empire and includes temples such as Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon Temple.

Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat was our first stop and as the light crept over the temple, we sat on the edge of the moat, munching on croissants.  Once the sky had lit up enough, we wandered into the temple and our guide explained the symbolic significance of the various architectural features.  The precision in the design, the symbolism throughout, and the sheer enormity of these temples bears witness to a remarkable civilization.  I am most impressed at the applications of astronomy in the architecture.  The temple was built with such exactitude that the sun will crown the highest pinnacle of Angkor Wat during an equinox.

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Our first day in Cambodia also marked the first day with Chris and Ryan, who had flown across the pond the night prior.  As you can see, we were super stoked to finally be here!  As our guide explained that Angkor Wat was modeled after the mythological Mount Meru (home of the gods in Hindu mythology and center of the universe), we wondered aloud about what daily life would have been like in a place inspired by the divine.

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After Angkor Wat, our guide led us to an area where we had a more substantial breakfast.  Over the meal, we chatted with the two people in our tour group that we didn’t know–a girl from Australia and a guy from Sweden that were currently working in Phnom Penh .  They were so friendly and gave us many suggestions of fun things to do in Phnom Penh (our next stop after Siem Reap).  After breakfast, our guide led us to a row of mountain bikes, our means of transport for the rest of the day.  The mountain bikes were, in my opinion, the best way to go.  We rode through the jungle from temple to temple, bypassing the tuk tuks traffic throughout Angkor.

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We rode through the jungle to our next stop, Bayon Temple.  Bayon was more intricately carved and decorated than Angkor Wat, but it was in much worse shape.  Time had not been kind to Bayon, and it just looked tired.   What I found interesting about Bayon is that it felt like I was weaving through a labyrinth, the confused layout a souvenir of remodeling done in the years after the commissioning king died.  More distinguishing features include the faces carved on the pinnacles and the enormous bas reliefs, with carvings depicting every day life.

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Our final stop in the mountain bike/temple excursion was Ta Prohm.  Most tourists come out here to feel like “Tomb Raider”, as portions of that movie were filmed here.  As you can see from the pictures below, this temple is known for the trees that have claimed it.  The kapok trees both support and destroy the temple, which I found fascinating.  The roots wedge themselves in between the stones, tearing them apart and making the integrity of the structure dependent on the tree staying alive.  The temple itself is in ruins, and if the kapok trees die, the temple might collapse, allowing the jungle to swallow it up.

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After Ta Prohm, we enjoyed lunch (and a few Angkor beers) as a group before heading back to our hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Check out my Trip Advisor reviews (under TheOtherAList)

Golden Butterfly Villa

Grasshopper Adventures

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